‘Sugar’ Review: Colin Farrell’s Apple Mystery Builds an Empty L.A. Neo-Noir Around a Sour Twist

Before his mid-career upswing — starting either with “The Lobster” or “The Beguiled” and running through recent scorchers like “After Yang” and “The Banshees of Inisherin” — it’s worth remembering that Colin Farrell used to make bad movies, too. Now, his hot streak includes an Oscar nomination and a successful blockbuster franchise (soon with its own TV spinoff), but back then, for every “New World” and “In Bruges,” there was a “London Boulevard” and “Dead Man Down.” “Disappointing” may be a better descriptor of his star-forming era, with the “Total Recall” and “Fright Night” reboots, as well as earlier flops like “Alexander,” “The Recruit,” and “S.W.A.T.” But no matter how you remember them (if you remember them), Farrell’s early career offered uncertain quality. Of course, TV fans needn’t be reminded that Farrell’s charming Irish talents have gone to waste in projects unworthy of his efforts. We shan’t forget “True Detective” Season 2, Ray Velcoro, or his brash bro-isms, even now that the franchise has joined Farrell on the rising tide of redemption.

The reason for dredging up the past isn’t to drag Farrell down but to lower expectations for his latest TV role. In “Sugar,” the Apple TV+ series from creator Mark Protosevich (whose last sole writing credit was Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” remake), Farrell plays John Sugar, a private investigator inspired by his silver screen counterparts and obsessed with their work. “Film buff,” he says, is an inadequate assessment of his love for classic cinema. He subscribes to Sight & Sound, Cahiers du Cinema, and American Cinematographer. He knows movie producers by sight and can quote their IMDb pages back to them. When he needs a gun, his handler, Ruby (played by Kirby), restores the same revolver Glenn Ford used in “The Big Heat” so he can walk around pretending to be Sgt. Dave Bannion.

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John Sugar, with his pristine black suit and baby blue convertible, lives his life as though all those big screen gumshoes were real people, and he’s their heir apparent. Farrell sure looks the part, and “Sugar” pulls out all the stops to keep up with his effortless cool. Director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”) uses iris shots, dramatic lighting, and even splices in scenes from films John either references or remembers as a means to heighten the series’ homage to classic noir. But an Old Hollywood P.I. mystery is only one of two genres “Sugar” is working within, and while I’m not allowed to mention the other, neither works on their own. Worse still, once the series unveils its coyly held other half, not even Farrell’s palpable charisma can overcome the last thing a tough-talking detective wants to hear: laughter.

Here’s what I can say: After a successful assignment in Japan, Sugar flies back to his home in Los Angeles — a Spanish Colonial-style hotel where he rents a villa — and immediately starts his next job. The granddaughter of legendary film producer Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell) is missing, and only her grandpa seems to care. Her dad, Bernie (Dennis Boutsikaris), thinks Olivia (played by Sydney Chandler, soon to be seen in Noah Hawley’s “Alien” series) is off on another bender and will come back home when she needs money, as she’s done in the past. But Jonathan doesn’t buy it. Olivia’s friends swear she’s been sober for two years, and she was rarely gone this long even when she was using.

Her half-brother, Davy (Nate Corddry), sides with his dad, which is both suspicious and convenient — suspicious because Davy is still poking around Olivia’s apartment while she’s gone, and convenient because he’s very busy trying to resuscitate his career. The former child actor hasn’t had a hit in ages, but his latest role (a revival of his breakout character, in a nice little wink at Hollywood’s current I.P. obsession) is already garnering Oscar buzz. Granted, that buzz might be coming from Bernie, who needs his self-financed picture to draw crowds if he hopes to pay back his debts. (Bernie is a nepo baby producer whose last picture, Sugar says with utter disdain, “was about a surfing monkey.”) Toss in a step-mom (Anna Gunn) who couldn’t care less about Olivia but remains fiercely protective of her baby Davy, and Sugar’s got plenty of suspects before looking outside the family.

Colin Farrell and James Cromwell sit in a private theater in the Apple series 'Sugar'
Colin Farrell and James Cromwell in ‘Sugar’Courtesy of Jason LaVeris / Apple TV+

Yet it’s when he first meets Melanie (Amy Ryan), Bernie’s third wife who was actually close with Olivia, that alarm bells start to go off — and not around Melanie. Although her backstory as the lead singer of a ’90s punk rock band called Vanilla Whore never rings true, it’s Sugar’s past that strains credulity. At a dive bar in Hollywood, as the two whiskey lovers throw back shots of a variety they’ve just discovered — “You ever have rye?” Melanie asks Sugar. “I heard cowboys order it in Westerns,” he says, “but I never thought to actually try it.” — Sugar mentions that he can’t get drunk. Melanie, already three sheets to the wind, asks how that can be, and he says, “My body processes alcohol at a rate 50 times faster than [normal].”

Huh. OK. Maybe that would be less fishy if we hadn’t already seen Sugar catch a fly between the tips of his chopsticks, or speak fluent Arabic, Japanese, and English within the span of 10 minutes, or collapse at random without apparent repurcussions. Toss in an eerie connection with an unhoused individual sleeping outside the bar (he gives him $200 to watch his convertible, a cell phone to call his sister, and five minutes of free life counseling, none of which seems sustainable if we’re meant to believe he does this every time he parks his car), and Sugar’s past becomes a far more curious spotlight than his case.

The series badly balances its dueling mysteries. Olivia’s investigation is too generic to spark much more than nominal concern, and Sugar’s personal life is kept at arm’s length for six of the eight episodes. At one point, he actually says, “I have a secret,” and when Melanie asks what it is — “Tell me, tell me, tell me,” she pleads — all he says is “I can’t.” I mean, that’s just a dick move, Sugar! You don’t tease a secret to your friend, let alone your audience, and then just clam up about it. You brought it up! Spill the beans or shut up about it!

Meirelles (who directs five of the eight episodes) tries to distract us with sun-washed L.A. days and cool-blue beach-side nights, but the cinematography reads as more smugly clever than deliberate or breathtaking. The nonstop movie references paired with fine performers does almost as much to hold cinephiles’ interest as the half-hour episode runtimes, but long before the series rolls its multiple ending titles, there’s no saving this stinker. The big twist isn’t enough to overcome unwelcome cliches — spare yourself the weightless pontificating about what makes us human and how violence begets violence (complete with some late-arriving and pretty severe misogyny) — but it does make clear that if this project had to be made, the first season should’ve been condensed into a pilot episode (or even a movie). “Sugar’s” love for Old Hollywood is the purest thing about it. It takes us back, sure, but only to when Colin Farrell couldn’t be trusted to pick a winner. Honestly, I might have preferred “True Detective” Season 2.

Grade: D+

“Sugar” premieres Friday, April 5 on Apple TV+ with two episodes. New episodes will be released weekly through the finale on May 17.

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